When Gods Descend

The story of Zeus forcing himself upon Leda contrasts sharply with the invitation of the true God to the young girl of Nazareth.

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On the matter of the ancient gods, whose number filled the heavens and the earth, it was always understood that one could never love them. Fear, yes, plus as much distance between them as possible. But hardly that love which characterizes relations among persons.

Aristotle, for example, who, like every good Greek, professed to believe in the gods, would never have regarded Zeus, reputed by all to be father of both gods and men, as a being from whom one could ever expect affection and respect. Or even fairness. 

Were there any doubt on the score, one has only to ask poor Leda, the young and lovely wife of Tyndareus, King of Sparta, on whom the fierce, unappeasable lust of Zeus fixed itself in the form of a swan, swooping down from Olympus to take his pleasure. “A sudden blow,” is how the poet Yeats begins his famous description of the assault, leaving Leda helpless and abject before the rapacious bird. “(T)he great wings beating still,” he tells us,

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Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

One would hardly call it an act of sweet seduction as depicted, for instance, in the works of such great Renaissance artists as Leonardo or Michelangelo or Rubens. Rather an exercise in sheer brutality, intended to violate and possess a completely innocent human being.

And the outcome? The birth of two ill-fated daughters, one of whom, Helen, will prove faithless to her husband Menelaus, thus causing the ten long years of the Trojan War, while the other, Clytemnestra, will be fated to murder her husband, Agamemnon, thus setting in motion the fall of the House of Atreus.

Not to mention, of course, the beginning of Western Literature, with its long and illustrious trail of so many dead, white, European males. So, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, isn’t it? But for the raging appetite of Zeus, alongside the resultant rape of Leda, there would be no Iliad by Homer, no Oresteia by Aeschylus, and the sensibility of the West might well have remained stillborn. 

“A shudder in the loins engenders there,” reports Yeats, registering the sudden divine ejaculation as the mighty god Zeus assails his victim:

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.

Slain on the very day of his triumphant return from a ruined Troy, hers was a sacrifice enacted by his vengeful wife, paid in full for a father’s sacrifice of their own daughter, the innocent Iphigenia, slaughtered at the behest of the gods in order to find favorable winds for launching the Greek fleet. 

Yeats could not have been more prescient in giving us “Leda and the Swan,” which is among the greatest works of the last century, showing us the long and tragic shadow cast by the actions of a single maniacal god. Written in 1923, exactly 100 years ago, it lays bare at the same time the awful fallout from the Great War, which ended four short years before with its unprecedented levels of death and disillusion. The time of the heroes will be no more. The hubris of men convinced of their moral and technological superiority will find itself doomed to suffer the same sudden blow.

However, it is in the final stanza of the poem that Yeats puts the deepest question of all, asking of Leda if, 

Being so caught up, 
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

In other words, what did she learn from the encounter with the sadist god Zeus? Does she now see into the meaning of things, of history itself, at last persuaded by its movements that all is the result of divine cruelty and caprice? Alas, she has nothing to say, leaving us only with the mute evidence of seeing Zeus reduce a fair mortal to the status of a thing, an object of play, first ravished, then rejected. 

Is this to be the relationship between ourselves and the gods? That the point of interface between the human and the divine can only be one of violence and obscenity? The story of Leda certainly suggests a state of tragic disproportion between the two. “As flies to wanton boys,” cries Gloucester as he wanders, blinded, upon the heath in Shakespeare’s King Lear, “are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport.” That when, like Zeus, they’ve finished with their fun, they drop us to the ground. Is this to be the relationship between ourselves and the gods? That the point of interface between the human and the divine can only be one of violence and obscenity?Tweet This

Something will have to be done to change the equation, nothing less than an intervention from above, as powerful in its effect as it will prove loving and gentle in its cause. All the old gods will then be swept clean away, making way for the true God, one who is not content merely with thunderbolts hurled from the sky, but who desires to come among us in order to raise us up higher than any Olympian deity. Making us, in fact, his very own children. 

And the prelude to all this, what might that be? Not the “sudden blow” delivered by Zeus, the demented deity sprung from a mythological world, who imposes his will upon a hapless and terrified woman. But an invitation, mysteriously issued by an angel, to a young woman more innocent even than Leda, soliciting the young girl’s permission to become the Mother of God himself.

Through a strange foreshadowing of the Holy Spirit, whom she long before conceived in her pure and immaculate heart, the Incarnate God will thus enter her virginal womb, coming among us not just to save us from our sins, but from the insanity of the gods as well. Whose molestations are no more, because they are no more.

[Image: Leda and the swan. Engraving by L. Garreau after J. Verkolye]


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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